"The Road to Sabarimala": A Feature Documentary of Indian Women’s Rights Movement at a Crossroads

In October 2018, Rehana Fathima, a former model and activist, attempted to enter the doors of Sabarimala temple, a sacred Hindu temple in the southern Indian state of Kerala. Only until recently, women in India had tried but failed to gain entry before her. Despite being accompanied by 80 policemen, she, too, was forced to turn back by the mob of protesters at the temple. The same mob later vandalized her house. 


The turning away of women at the doors of Sabarimala temple has not been by peaceful means. They have been violently pelted by stones and harassed by throngs of protestors until they turned back. This temple, that remains so unreachable to women, is deeply personal to film director Shilpa Kunnappillil.


In her feature documentary, The Road to Sabarimala, Kunnappillil retraces the steps of a group of six women who make the pilgrimage to the temple. She also revisits her own past that led to filming this documentary.


When Shilpa was 10, her father told her they were headed to Sabarimala from Kerala, where Shilpa was living at the time. Together, they began preparing their bodies and minds for the journey by observing a month-long vritham, or oath, which required Shilpa to change the rhythm of her daily routine.  


“To me at the time, the pilgrimage meant waking up at five a.m. to take a freezing bath before the sun rose and not getting to eat my grandmother’s fish curry for a month,” Kunnappillil reminisced.

                                                                      Film Director Shilpa Kunnappillil 

Before she realized it, the days had coalesced into one month. The day before they departed for the arduous journey, consisting of a five-hour drive and a trek up the mountain, Shilpa and her father went to a small nearby temple to receive the blessing of their community. She sensed a powerful energy fill every inch of the room from the collective prayer as a coconut was broken in half during the religious ceremony.


The intimate moment was akin to Shilpa’s rite of passage into her family’s culture and religion. However, an important person in her life -  her own mother - was barred from entry.


“I vividly remember my mom being missing from the picture,” recalled Kunnappillil, who is now 21. “She couldn’t enter the temple because she was on her period.”


All women between the ages of 10 and 50, or of menstruating age, have strictly been prohibited from entering Sabarimala since its inception in the 12th century to prevent their contaminating the sacred temple. Because the shrine’s deity, Lord Ayyappa, is believed to be celibate, the presence of women who are of childbearing age is thought to endanger his vow of celibacy.

But, on September 28th, 2018, the Supreme Court ruled that women of all ages must be allowed into Sabarimala. It was not a unanimous ruling by the five-member bench.


Ironically, the only woman on the bench, Justice Indu Malhotra, was the voice of dissent. “Notions of rationality cannot be brought into matters of religion,” the 62-year-old judge asserted.


Joining Justice Malhotra, groups of women have passionately protested the verdict, marching on village streets and posting pictures on social media with hashtags like “#ReadyToWait #Sabarimala” in support of religious tradition over gender equality.


The nuanced tension between social advancement and religious tradition lies at the heart of the Sabarimala conflict. The Road to Sabarimala explores this clash of perspectives among women in India, inquiring: How do we advocate for women’s rights in a society influenced by religious traditions that do not fit within the lens of Western feminism?

“The feminist discourse happening in India  is much more complicated than Western conversations,” Kunnappillil observed. “Rather than trying to answer a question, the film’s goal is to give as many women as we can a voice. We want to paint a more conceptual representation of womanhood that reveal ways in which women exist in society, ways that we may not be used to seeing.”


The documentary will primarily trace the steps of a group of women trying to enter Sabarimala, but it will also offer a rare glimpse into life as a woman in Kerala: a mother dressing her young daughter in a traditional silk dress, conversations between an elderly grandmother and her caretaker, a fisherwoman gutting and scaling fish on the side of the road.

“It’s a sensitive, multi-dimensional portrait of Indian women at a crossroads,” Kunnappillil said.


While international media tend to cover more black-and-white issues that are universally deemed reprehensible (e.g., child marriages and gang rape cases), they often neglect to cover nuanced stories that “aren’t as clear or wrong per se,” Kunnappillil noted. “Western feminism is a concept that is difficult to rationalize within the cultural context of India. In the push for certain parts of Indian culture to adopt Western ideas of modernization, the complicated, age-old socialization of Indian women is being ignored.”


The case is under further review, and the date for the court’s final ruling  is quickly approaching. On January 22, the same bench that passed the initial verdict will review the case again and, if no change in ruling is to be made, will put the ban on the religious practice of restricting women into place.


“I’d love for any woman to identify with the film and see themselves represented,” said Kunnappillil, whose storytelling focuses on the perspective of first-generation, female Indian immigrants. “This film is my attempt to portray Indian women on their own terms. I hope to make way for the subjects of this film to guide me and the audience to a new understanding of what being a woman means.”

                                                            Shilpa with cinematographer Yasmin Gorenberg


The documentary is expected to be released sometime in mid-2020.  


Support the production of The Road to Sabarimala today.  To follow Shilpa’s journey, click here for weekly updates on production and developments. You can also follow the film on Instagram, Facebook and Twitter.


All images taken by Shilpa Kunnappilli